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The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 16, 2014
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From School Library Journal
The girls portrayed in this book are not resisting with weapons or spying: they are simply living their lives as boys. The reasons are varied. The family needs help in a store. Women need a "male" relative to walk them on errands. Many girls call their status as a "boy" a type of magic—by showing that the family is ready for a boy, a real male child may arrive. Often, members of the community know the child is really a girl, but accept this gender switch and go along with the ruse. Nordberg focuses her narrative on the adult Azita. Her father educated her, but once she reached her prime childbearing years, she was married off to a rural, illiterate cousin. Somehow, Azita manages to win a government seat in her new district. Western readers will root for Azita to find a way out of this fiercely patriarchal arrangement, but Nordberg is astounding in her ability to elicit sympathy and rage for the women portrayed, while also attempting to explain why more elaborate female resistance may not yet be possible. Teenagers will find a great deal to think about in this well-researched and readable piece of reporting.—Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
Winner of the 2015 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize
A Salon 2014 Authors' Favorite Book
One of Buzzfeed's Best Nonfiction Books of 2014
A Business Insider Best Book of 2014
A Columbus Dispatch Best Book of 2014
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2014
A PopMatters Best Book of 2014
An FP Interrupted Best Book of 2014
An IPI Global Observatory Recommended Book for 2015
A TruthDig Book of the Year, 2014
Finalist for the Goodreads Choice Award, Nonfiction
“Through extensive interviews with former bacha posh, observation of present ones and conversations with doctors and teachers, Nordberg unearths details of a dynamic that one suspects will be news to the armies of aid workers and gender experts in post-invasion Afghanistan.”–New York Times Book Review
“Jenny Nordberg has produced a striking and nuanced work that explores the current status of Afghan women through one of their subcultures...[A] finely written book.”–Washington Post
“Five years of intensive reporting have yielded this gritty, poignant, and provocative collage of intimate portraits…Nordberg conveys captivating nuance and complexity; just when you feel some kind of judgment or conclusive opinion is within reach, she deftly turns the tables, leaving us to reexamine our own prejudices and societal norms as we struggle with questions that are perhaps unanswerable.”–Elle
“Nordberg’s immersive reporting reveals an astonishingly clear picture of this resourceful, if imperfect, solution to the problem of girlhood in a society where women have few rights and overwhelming restrictions.”–The Boston Globe
“Nordberg’s book is riveting, bringing a practice previously unknown to the West to light, and continuing to elucidate the plight of Afghan women, whose supposed inferiority is so ingrained in their culture that Western feminism can make few inroads.”–Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Nordberg's intimate exploration leaves us rooting for her brave subjects.”–Mother Jones
“Nordberg creates a moving intimacy with these stories, weaving them into the bigger picture of contemporary Afghanistan. Diving deep into the lives and hearts of people who are usually ignored, she reveals the enormity of a localized struggle even while grounding it in broader human experience, never allowing the reader to reduce her subjects to curiosities.”–DallasMorningNews.com
“In clear, simple prose, Nordberg describes her encounters with several current or former bacha posh, including a nurse who kept the role until a month before her wedding, a tae kwon do instructor who now guides younger “underground girls,” and an adolescent still resisting being turned into a woman… The book raises provocative questions about gender roles in Afghanistan and beyond.”–The Columbus Dispatch
“Fascinating… Nordberg manages to capture the strength of these women, as well as their vulnerabilities, to show the psychological toll bacha posh has on those who endure it, and the ability of women to adapt to the constricts society places on them.” –ForeignPolicy.com
“In fluid narrative style, Nordberg explores the [bacha posh] phenomenon through compelling individual portraits… In addition to presenting a rare glimpse of Afghan life, The Underground Girls of Kabul explores the ways that gender identity is shaped and policed. Extending well beyond Afghanistan, this book compels the reader to rethink gender differences.”—Straight.com
“The Underground Girls of Kabul is an outstanding work of journalism that uncovers new information about an important subject. It’s also an extraordinarily well-written book, full of riveting stories about the real lives of girls and women in Afghanistan today.” –PopMatters.com
“Five years of research, and an almost novelistic approach to her findings, has produced a book full of fresh stories.” —Razia Iqbal, Independent
“Nordberg's hopeful yet heart-breaking account offers a dazzling picture of Afghan life . . . She is refreshingly non-judgmental . . . Thanks to this book, a little more light has been shone on a country and society so often misunderstood” —Independent on Sunday
“Partly a reflection on the politics of sex and gender . . . but it is also a tale of discovery.” —Sunday Telegraph
“This fascinating study sheds new light on what it's like to be female in the country declared the worst in the world to be a woman . . . This powerful account of powerlessness resonates with the most silenced voices in society.” —The Observer
“[A] searing exposé…Nordberg's subtle, sympathetic reportage makes this one of the most convincing portraits of Afghan culture in print.” –Publishers Weekly [starred]
“A stunning book… Nordberg has done some staggering work in this unique, important, and compelling chronicle. Book clubs will be riveted, and will talk for hours.” –Booklist [starred]
“As affecting as the stories of these women are, Nordberg’s conclusion—that women’s rights are essential to ‘building peaceful civilizations’—is the most powerful message of this compelling book. An intelligent and timely exploration into contemporary Afghanistan.” – Kirkus Reviews
“The Underground Girls of Kabul is a groundbreaking feat of reportage, a kaleidoscopic investigation into gender, resistance, and the limits of cross-cultural understanding. Jenny Nordberg is a riveting storyteller and she has an astonishing tale to tell.” –Michelle Goldberg, author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World
“Jenny Nordberg has given us a fascinating look into a hidden phenomenon of extreme patriarchal societies: a form of gender-bending far riskier and more rewarding than Western academia's trendy, abstract gender categories. Nordberg's reporting is thorough and sensitive, her writing vivid and insightful. You will not forget this book; it will haunt you.” – Robin Morgan
“The Underground Girls of Kabul is a brilliant, urgent, groundbreaking work. It is a call to action, and a reminder that even under the greatest abuses of power women have found ways to fight and flourish. The inspiring story of the bacha posh is not just a tale of ingenuity and survival in Afghanistan. It is an excavation of the deep and insidious roots of global misogyny, and an offering of hope.” —Cara Hoffman, author of Be Safe I Love You
“The Underground Girls of Kabul draws back the curtain on the world of bacha posh, young Afghan girls whose families disguise them as boys and raise them, until adolescence intervenes, as sons. Jenny Nordberg's book is a tremendous feat of reporting and storytelling: until her work on the custom of bacha posh was published in the New York Times, the practice had never been systematically documented, and her narrative is so finely-observed that it often reads like fiction. Nordberg's curiosity, her humor, and her genuine warmth for her subjects come through on every page.” – Katherine Zoepf, fellow, the New America Foundation
“The Underground Girls of Kabul is a riveting, firsthand account of what life as a girl is like in Afghanistan and how it often means becoming a boy. Jenny Nordberg has written a compelling and important work that exposes the profound gender prejudice that exists, in different forms, all over the world.” –Jennifer Clement, author of Prayers for the Stolen
“Forget everything you thought you knew about gender and what it means to be a woman or man. Jenny Nordberg’s exquisitely reported look at why Afghans choose to raise their girls as boys is nothing less than heartbreaking, mind-bending, and mesmerizing—not to mention timely.”—Lauren Wolfe, director of Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege
“Nordberg brings to light a world that no Afghan speaks of, but everyone knows: the world of girls raised as boys, usually until puberty. In a society where being a girl means living as chattel, and where families without boys are shamed, the bacha posh tradition arose, as it has in other highly patriarchal societies. Going deeper, Nordberg discovers that the bacha posh, once adults, become a subversive force: having tasted freedom and opportunity, these women can never go back. They stand up--for themselves, their daughters, and their country. The former bacha posh may yet change Afghanistan for the better . . . Nordberg’s book is a pioneering effort to understand this hidden world.” –Valerie M. Hudson, professor and George H.W. Bush Chair, The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University
“The investigation into bacha posh gives a new and unique perspective on the women’s situation, gender and resistance in Afghanistan. The author tells the story with empathy and respect for the women who have let her into their lives. This book will interest both those who want to learn about Afghanistan and those wanting to understand how gender works, and it is a must-read for both Afghanistan and gender specialists.” –Sari Kouvo, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network
“The Underground Girls of Kabul is an amazing book. The fact that Nordberg brings this to light is eye-opening to everyone—even to Afghans. It is the truth that many Afghans live with it as part of their life.”–Naheed Bahram, program director of Women for Afghan Women
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Top Customer Reviews
Afghanistan is a very strict patriarchal society. The importance of a male offspring is paramount. A pregnant woman is said to dream the sex of her unborn child. She is at fault if she does not have a boy. The community looks down upon families that do not have a male child. Sometimes a family that has had no male offspring will announce the birth of a boy and dress a girl baby as a boy. At times, the community knows this is a girl pretending to be a boy, but even a fake boy is better than a girl. This practice called “Bacha Posh” is not officially acknowledged but is not uncommon in the society. Sometimes a family will justify the need for a fake boy because a male child can go out and work in the community and bring in money for the family. A female cannot get a job or play outside; girls are kept inside, and in some cases, forbidden to even look out the window.
When the “bacha posh” reaches puberty, she is expected to revert back to being female and is expected to marry. In some cases, “bacha posh” resist the change back to a female role, since the relative freedom and power is in sharp contrast to an Afghan woman’s existence. Boys have more fun. Girls’ lives are severely restricted. If the bacha posh stays as a male pretender past puberty, the transition back to a female can be a problem, and the girl may never feel her place as a woman.
The author came to Afghanistan to investigate the practice of “Bacha Posh”. She interviews many women in the communities, including Azita. Azita is a politician who is a member of Parliament, but she has very little power as a woman. Azita’s father, a Kabul University Professor, had admired her intellect and wanted a great future for his daughter. During the period when the Russians had exerted control over Afghanistan, female equality, including equal rights to an education, was emphasized. Azita received a quality education. However, when the Taliban came to power, her worried father forced her to marry a cousin, an illiterate son of a farmer who beat her and expected her to live with his first wife and children and still provide for the extended family. Azita had twin girls and no male offspring. Desperate to save face with the community and keep her standing as a politician, she pretended one of the twins was a boy. Her female child Mehran, was made a basha posh.
The book is primarily the author’s research, her observations in Afghanistan through her eyes. Some artistic license came into play. One character in the book was really a fusion of a few different people. Decidedly the book has historical significance and is worth reading. There is a good deal to learn here. Bravo for most of the book. Too bad the author ruined the ending.
Unfortunately, the book is tainted with faulty science. The last part of the book was disappointing and in sharp contrast to most of the writing. Once the author gets away from her detailed observations and starts to draw conclusions that she is not qualified to make, there is a problem. At the end of the book, her conclusions are even more elucidated.
The author insists evidence shows that there are almost no real differences in male and female brains from birth. They are essentially the same. The environment is the determining factor. A child is raised a certain way and expected to act a certain way. A child forms habits associated with the male or female sex. These learned behaviors are ingrained and feel natural to the child.
This kind of faulty science is harmful and goes against the research and thorough conclusions of the professionals in the American Psychiatric Association. Children are born with different masculine and feminine tendencies from their birth. However, in the author’s view, a gay child can be changed to the “correct” sexual orientation by therapy. This is the view proclaimed by certain conservative groups in this country, groups that do not believe in science. I find this very disturbing.
I would have given this book a five-star rating if the author had kept her writing to observations about Afghan society. In fact, I was raving about this book to several friends before the author changed course. Despite the excellent quality of most of the book, I can only give her 3 stars due to the false “scientific” conclusions she insists upon delivering to her readers.
Imagine then, an entire society (viewed by the West as extremely conservative and primitive) that permits and encourages girls to be raised as boys—only until puberty. This is the cultural secret that Award-winning Swedish author Jenny Nordberg reveals. The book is the result of her documentary and five years’ worth of research and reporting.
Nordberg explains how Afghan culture’s roots stem from Zoroastrianism and a patriarchal society. Girls here are commodities to be sold and bartered. The higher the family’s reputation, the greater the value placed upon the female and her bride price (paid to the father by the groom’s family). Should anything happen to tarnish her (and her family’s) reputation, her value plummets. Keeping their ‘gold’ protected and virtually under lock and key is how the society operates.
Nordberg discusses patriarchy in other countries, but focuses on Afghanistan and how it deals with the differences of sex and gender, freedom and privilege, and captivity and slavery. She has divided her book into four distinct parts: Boys; Youth; Men, Mothers; and Fathers.
In a society where only males have rights, it is easy to understand why girls embrace being raised as boys. The problem exists though, that, some girls refuse to accept their traditional societal roles, transitioning from being thought of and treated as males to those of the weaker, subservient females.
Afghans find convenience in changing girls to boys. In some instances, it is seen as a talisman; the next child born will be a boy if preceded by a girl ( because ‘she’ is a ‘he’—a bacha posh). Sometimes, with no sons, a bacha posh can fill such a role. ‘He’ can work to support the family, or escort the females safely through the streets. (Remember, the girls’ honor must always be protected and maintained.) Bacha posh are found in the army and serving in the police, too.
Girls living as bacha posh—literally, ‘dressed up like a boy’ are explored in detail. Are their psyches harmed when raised as the gender they are not? Does society really accept bacha posh as true males—even when they are known to have been born as females? Why would a bacha posh want to relinquish privileged status to be relegated to one of chattel? Do mothers want this for their daughters? How can a country’s people claim to want to be modern when its females’ lives are chained to a past more like the Middle Ages?
Nordberg deftly reports how Afghanistan handles its bacha posh by intimately sharing the lives of four women. They include a member of the parliament and turning her fourth daughter into a boy; a tomboy who defies her parents, refusing their attempts to turn her back into a girl; a woman with three daughters who lived for two decades as a man; and an undercover female police officer.
It is only through her thorough understanding and appreciation of the culture that, she helps us grasp the perplexities of the bocha posh. Jenny Nordberg helps the reader to fathom not only the lack of womens’ rights, but the history and machinations of this ancient civilization and its impact in modern times.